Regardless of what you think of Ray Kurzweil, his predictions, or the singularity, they certainly make interesting subjects for a documentary. If you’re new to the singularity, Transcendent Man gives a primer on what exponential growth in information technology may bring for genetics, nano technology, and robotics – all within the coming decades. His predictions extrapolate on existing technologies and are vague enough that there’s enough wiggle room to be convincing, at least superficially. Fascinating though these ideas may be, I felt the intimate portrait of Kurzweil himself is the real heart of the film. When you see how many supplements he takes on a daily basis, to say he’s an eccentric would be putting things lightly.
Kurzweil believes, for example, that he will one day bring his father back from the dead. Not a biblical resurrection, mind you, but one based on data. He believes that he will be able to feed information about his father’s life (boxes and boxes collecting his father’s personal letters, music compositions, and other documents), including his own memories of him, into a computer simulation that will magically recreate his persona. Most of the time, I felt like I had a good grasp on the concepts discussed in the film, but I take issue with this. Assuming that such a simulation were possible, it could never be accurate because it would be based entirely on Kurzweil’s perception of his father and scraps of information that can’t possibly reflect the depth of one’s soul (for lack of a better term). Others’ perceptions are usually quite different from how we see ourselves, and people usually have a hard time understanding themselves in the first place!
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I can play along and say that maybe, someday, we’ll be able to “back up” our brains onto computers, but without those brains, a simulation could never be perfect. I’m sure such a simulation would have beneficial psychological effects for the bereaved, but that’s beside the point. It seems to me that if Kurzweil is willing to delude himself into believing a simulation of his father is as good as the real thing (or at least good enough to claim it will cure his father’s death), then he is probably deluding himself about a lot of other things, too. The film does give us some perspective through dissenting opinions, but everyone interviewed (with the exception of a religious radio talk show host) agrees to some extent with what Kurzweil has predicted.
It’s fun to think that an artificial intelligence may bootstrap itself, and our own limited brains, into higher and higher levels of consciousness. Yet I can’t help but be reminded of that old adage, “anything that seems too good to be true probably is”. Scientists with expertise outside of Kurzweil’s domain (such as biology) argue that he oversimplifies things. Others say he is simply overly optimistic. I don’t think either accusation is unjust. The film paints Kurzweil as traumatized by the loss of his father, and terrified of his own mortality. It isn’t surprising that some accuse him of pseudo-scientific religious quackery of the sort Kurzweil dismisses as comfort for the dying. Still, it’s all very interesting (and available on Netflix).
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